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An Ode to Tonya Harding

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My mother is enamored with the legacy of Tonya Harding. Every four years for as long as I can remember, the winter Olympics would roll around and the names of “Tonya,”  Nancy” and “that bitch” would float around the house. My mother, Sara, wasn't so much as obsessed with the story as she was passionate. It was clear from a young age that this was a Team Tonya household. 


As the years go on, I seem to be the only one to inherit her feverish interest--my brother even had the audacity to say that Harding seemed too whiny during old interview tapes. I won't lie, I, Tonya has been one of my favorite movies for the past three years, but Sara and I aren't alone. Over in Williamsburg, there was a hallway museum dedicated to everything Tonya, and the only reason I didn’t go is because 1) I wasn’t living here when it closed in 2017, and 2) I would be betraying my mom if I went alone. There's a play that is purely constructed from things that have been stated during the news coverage of it all--and surprisingly, it works. But why? What is it about this event that keeps us on the edge of our seats, almost thirty years down the line? Well, there’s a lot.


Probably the most obvious is the story itself. It seems like a storyline you’d keep up with on a soap opera for two weeks while you battle a horrendous flu, but no, this actually happened. The sex, the violence, the sheer drama--it’s all true. But in the truth of it all, there's an unreliability and ambiguity you just can’t shake. Part of the reason why we haven't let it go yet is because the story keeps changing, even after all this time. We don't know how much Tonya knew, and most likely never will. We don't know if she was telling the truth or covering her ass--that's all up to you.


Something that people never talk about or even acknowledge is the role that class played in all of this. Harding, who grew up in poverty and with a difficult family dynamic, was the opposite of the image that the USFSA wanted to project to the world. Her mother chainsmoked in arenas and her husband was some dude named Jeff Gilooly (who was probably hot by 1994 backwoods standards), and both were awful people. She skated to the Jurassic Park theme and hair metal bands, and didn't care what anybody thought about her in a sport that was all about caring. She was talented, and she knew it, regardless of her homemade costumes and crunchy hair. Sure, it might have contributed to an attitude problem, but she had the work ethic to back it up. If anybody deserved to be a diva, it was her. 


But every single time that Tonya worked her way up the system, somebody would meet her there to remind her where she came from, to tell her that no matter how hard she tried, she would never be a part of the boys club (or, rich people club. I don't know). Someone was always there to remind her that she would always be trailer park trash regardless of her inarguable talent. Whether or not Tonya had anything to do with it, the clubbed knee had everything to do with opportunity and privilege. This is the first woman who ever successfully accomplished a triple axel jump in competition. She became an Olympian, and she broke records. Tonya Harding was a force to be reckoned with, and to tell the truth, nobody would care if her fur coat wasn't made from rabbit hides. I can't even say if America would remember her whatsoever if she didn't cuss out the other competitors and shotgun beers in her spare time. Class helps contextualize and even adds an entire layer of dimension to this story. 


At surface level, this story is often diminished to a catty feud between women, when there was so much more at work besides snide comments and rankings. This goes to show the amount of pressure and value the media and public put on women for stories that aren't up to them. Even now, almost everybody involved wants to move on. Both Tonya and Jeff go by different names, and Kerrigan refuses to speak about it at all. But we keep untrenching it all because of how juicy and meaty the story is. Who cares if they want to let it go--we don't want to let go, and that's all that matters! Tonya has tried to make something of herself even after her lifetime ban was instigated--she went into boxing, she tried car racing. But like the judges who never gave her the scores she deserved, America never let her forget that no matter how hard she tried, she bashed in Nancy Kerrigan's knee, and that's all she'd ever amount to.


But through it all, she doesn't give up. Tonya is scrappy, and it's not hard to see something of yourself in her. Time and time again, she'd fall on her face, and everybody around her would absolutely humiliate her for it. And still, she’d decide to get back up and do it again. If she decides to do something, she will stop at nothing to do it--the only thing truly holding her back is her asthma (RIP to her boxing career, the star that burned out too quickly). And how can you hate that? 


Even though I will profess her innocence until the day I die, I can't honestly say if I'm right or wrong. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if Nancy deserved for her knee to get bashed (and that is not what I am saying, even though that is totally what Sara is saying)--for fuck's sake, she ended up skating in the end anyways. What matters is that Tonya is strong as hell, in every sense of the word. She survived several abusive relationships, and still kicked ass in everything she did. She literally beat up her creepy older step brother with a hot curling iron while getting ready for a skating competition (that she won, mind you). If I was ever thrust into Tonya’s position, I’d crumple like a pathetic used tissue, and so would you. It doesn’t matter if she did it or not. What matters is that I am enamored with Tonya Harding’s legacy, and so should you.


written by
Renee Cartwright
March 12, 2020